August Angst

These are very strange days indeed, these brutal August days. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but clearly we are living in extraordinary times across the board. It is safe to say that no one alive on Earth has ever faced what we are now facing on the daily. How do we retain our sanity in the midst of such unprecedented chaos?

As I often do on this blog, I’d like to share a personal story of what’s happening in my own life at this moment. This spring, before the pandemic upended our entire society, I applied and was accepted into a Masters of Teaching graduate program at University of Colorado, Denver. I was scared, excited, and had to work through relentless mindtalk about my ability to accomplish such a massive undertaking. I’m sure that, for some, getting a master’s degree is simply the next item on their life’s to-do list. But not for me. I’ve sort of done my life in a weird reverse order in some ways, therefore working towards higher degrees wasn’t on my radar until mid-life. That’s where I am now.

The fall semester of 2020 started this week. After a very uncertain summer, the university decided that most courses would be held online, either asynchronous or remote, which means we all join a Zoom meeting once a week. I’m sure that many of you are experiencing similar ways of meeting, either as students, for your jobs, or by helping your children with their own online classes. Will this become the new normal for education? Nobody yet knows. We are going into this school year with myriad questions, but not many answers.

Four years ago, I returned to university to finish up my bachelor’s degree that I never completed back in the days of my twenties. For two and a half years, I loved going to classes, studying for exams, reading lots of books and scholarly articles, and writing many papers. I took classes I was interested in and enjoyed. School was great! I was actually sad when it was over. Then I took a year to contemplate what I should do with that degree, what path was next in my life?

https://studentlifethespot.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/10-inspirational-quotes-for-students/larson/

As I looked and reflected deeply within, the idea of becoming a licensed teacher kept coming up, and even as I shrugged it off or tried to ignore it, that invitation would not leave me. I used many arguments against the voice. What about my age? I’m not in my twenties and full of invincibility, I told it. Didn’t matter. What about all the crap that teachers have to put up with in public education? They complain all the time about the low pay, long hours, fights with administrators, and badly behaving students. Didn’t matter, the invitation remained. What about the amount of work it will be to actually do the master’s program? And the internships- I will have to borrow money in order to work for free at a school for two semesters? And the cost of grad school?? Yikes. My mind would spin out into these whining rants over and over.

And yet. Whenever I took a deep breath and remembered my students from the past year of being a literacy tutor, their faces, sweet smiles and stories would calm my mind. Every single time my mind would mess with me, then I’d think of those kids and drop down into my heart space. What I know, deep inside, is that those kids needed me last year. There will be others who will also need me to be with them, helping them to learn, to cope, to grow through their childhoods in good ways. If I give up before I start, I am letting them down. And I cannot, in good conscience, do that to them.

So, here I am, the first week of this crazy semester, trying to figure out how to get my footing as I begin this ascent. How to organize my time with four online classes? Only one has a formal meeting day and time for the 2 hours, 45 minutes of Zoom class (ouch). The others have syllabi, schedules for readings, assignments and due dates, and discussion threads. Without having to leave my apartment to go to campus and meet in person, it’s up to me to figure out how long each day should I devote to each course, to the readings (most of which are done on my laptop), and to taking notes (in a Word doc? In a notebook with a pen?).  Geez… I sort of feel like I’m back to the basics of how to do school. Then, there ‘s TECHNOLOGY.  Oh my goodness, it is more complex than ever!  The more apps and fixes and hacks the techies create (supposedly to help students) the harder and more difficult it seems to become. Oy.

As I struggle through each day of this longest, hottest, strangest summer ever, there are many moments when I either want to complain, give up or break down. At those moments, what seems to help the most is remembering that there are many millions of other people who are going through similar or way harder struggles than me. None of us are immune to the pain and hardship of these days. My heart is breaking for the folks in California, and my own Colorado, who are running from the wildfires during the extreme heat and dry winds of August. We’ve been here before, during the past decade of drought and extreme weather conditions. The global climate catastrophe hasn’t gone away just because the world is engulfed in the 2020 pandemic.

Dear Readers, are you finding good ways to cope with your own lives and challenges? This unusual summer will soon give way to perhaps a beyond unusual autumn. I wish you all strength, courage and loving guidance to be with you, as you traverse your individual paths and we collectively move into the unwritten future. Keep your chin up!

The Value of Small Gestures

 

student_pajamas_virtual learning
This is how many kids are doing online learning during Covid days.

The end of this most unusual school year is finally upon us. Today was my last day of online tutoring . For the past five weeks I worked with students who bravely engaged with me through computer screens   Navigating through all this involved both huge challenges and delights. Along with hundreds of thousands of teachers and students, I learned two basic facts this spring: 1) we can teach and learn virtually–even with young children it is possible; and 2) it’s not nearly as much fun or satisfying to do school through computer screens (although it is nice to wear pajamas to school every day).

Society en masse experiencing shelter-at-home and safer-at-home orders has forced us to reconcile the lifestyle we all took for granted with a new way of living—apart physically, yet finding the most creative and innovative ways to still be together and connect human to human. We’ve had to be flexible and adaptable on the fly, and on all levels—mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional. In my case, the emotional level has felt most extreme. Days and nights have been wide emotional pendulums, from feeling steady, happy, and even joyful at moments, to later in the day dipping down into anxiety, fear, and loneliness. We’re undergoing a grand human experiment of learning resilience in the face of adversity, and of experiencing grace under unprecedented pressure.

Through online tutoring, I observed that the kids adapted to the lockdown situation with surprising agility and often much less drama than many adults in the room. The biggest hardship for children, I’d guess, is their highly restricted social time with friends and limited opportunities for physical exercise. Teaching academic subjects is challenging enough through a screen; how PE teachers manage it is nearly incomprehensible.

Saying goodbye to my students, who are all between 7 and 9 years old, was an internal process that took many days. I realized anew how hard it is to say goodbye to people I grew fond of, and all the more so because of their innocence and vulnerability. The biggest learning for me during the past six months is that a caring adult can make a huge difference in a child’s life. Small gestures matter greatly—the few minutes that you give to really listen to a child so they can express what’s in their mind and heart will give them self confidence and trust in you.

This spring has shown many of us the value of small gestures. It has shone a spotlight on people that many of us casually take for granted—now deemed essential to the running of society. I believe that teachers, tutors, paraprofessionals, and school staff members are included in the group of essential workers for society. Although some parents and family members may disagree, I would argue that a child’s school community is a critically important part of their life, and what they experience within their school will either enhance their self-worth, intellectual, emotional, and social capacities, or do the opposite. Society as a whole must continue to support their local public education system, and not let corporate money interests dictate how the system is run.

As a last gift, I shared this music video with my students today. It’s an old song, and still sounds so good. I hope it brings a smile and few dance steps to your body, mind, heart, and soul.

 

 

Looking for silver linings during the pandemic

 

cloud-silver-lining
image via https://www.flickr.com

Hello again, Dear Readers! I’ve been laying low during the past weeks of lockdown, like so many of you across the planet. One the one hand, it’s been difficult to find words to express all that I’ve been thinking and feeling during the past several weeks. On the other, I hardly know where to begin to articulate all the emotions, observations and insights that have flowed consistently through my soul.

Such paradoxical times we are living through right now! As Dickens once famously wrote, “the best of times, the worst of times” seems to sum it up in broad terms. The news cycle continues to find every detail and nuance of the pandemic to report on, to the near exclusion of everything else. Not a healthy emotional diet to subject myself to, so I’ve started limiting the amount of Covid 19 news I can stomach in a day.

Now that spring has arrived here in Colorado’s Front Range and May is nearly upon us, the energy has shifted. People are outside much more, despite the stay-at-home order still in place. The lovely park near my home was filled with folks exercising in imaginative ways as they enjoyed the balmy spring temperatures. Many of us are by now simply wishing to get on with our regular lives, go back to the routines and work/school life we all relied on, and have the nightmare of Covid 19 get behind us. Yet, we are still in the middle of the crisis that has touched everyone in one way or another.

Working as a literacy tutor this school year, I, along with tens of thousands of other educators around the US have had a steep learning curve on how to hold virtual classes with students. I am very lucky to be working at a school district that already had many resources in place for virtual learning. Through the support of my wonderful coach and the whole team at Colorado Reading Corps, some of us have been able to transition to online tutoring. It was an extraordinary and joyous moment when I first saw my students’ faces and heard their sweet voices again after a month of lockdown with no contact. One of several miracles I’ve experienced during these stressful days.

I am looking for silver linings now, no matter how small or subtle. Gifts of this time include: the quiet of my inner city neighborhood and closing of certain streets, giving pedestrians and bicyclists the luxury of space to walk and ride on normally congested roads; an appreciation of the vastly improved air quality in town and clear skies for stargazing at night; time to simply be—to meditate, pray, dream, nap, and relax; the general slowdown of human life on Earth, enabling our precious Mama Gaia to take a necessary breath and begin to heal from the constant destruction inflicted upon her by nearly 8 billion human souls.

A beautiful example of a silver lining hidden within the crisis comes from NPR this weekend. They ran a story about a migrant worker from Nepal, who with tens of thousands of others, ended up stuck at the Northern Indian border during the lockdown. Unable to return home, the migrants were sheltering at a school converted into a temporary camp. But, unlike many people who become stranded at borders, these migrant workers were lucky to have some selfless teachers there to help teach them literacy skills. One man, Pratap Singh Bora, now in his mid-50s, had never learned to write or read as a child or youth. He had never learned to write his own name. But during the past weeks at the border camp, a teacher taught him, along with other workers who were also illiterate, the Hindi alphabet and basics of reading. Now, for the first time in this man’s life, he is able to write his own name. (read the full story here)

A huge silver lining to the Covid 19 pandemic is that it is showing all of us, in high relief, the areas of our common society that are sorely in need of radical shifts. The problems, and their potential solutions, have been in plain sight for years. Yet, the pandemic and emergency measures that have been put into place have exposed vast inequalities in such an extreme way that it is impossible to continue to ignore them in the same ways as before. It has shown the public how vital having a social safety net is, just how vital essential service workers truly are, and how taken for granted they have been by the rest of us. It has shown even more starkly, how broken our government system is at the federal level. Eventually, the pandemic will lessen and life will return to its usual bustling pace. But, life will not, cannot, return to how it was before the coronavirus time. This pandemic is changing all of us in ways we can’t yet know.

Record these days in whatever ways you can, Dear Readers. These days, weeks and months of 2020 are epic and life-changing for humanity as a whole. Notice all the silver linings in your own lives and celebrate every single one. Although we cannot yet hug each other because of social distancing, we can still smile while acknowledging our common joys and sorrows.